The England captain Courtney Lawes believes “unacceptable” racist behaviour must be stamped out of rugby and those responsible named and shamed following last week’s shocking revelations by his former teammate Luther Burrell.
Lawes, who is only the second black player to captain the England men’s side, admitted he was shocked to read Burrell’s alarming testimony in an interview with the Mail on Sunday, in which he said racism was rife within the sport. Burrell said that he had been subjected to “racial banter” by teammates including comments about slavery, bananas and fried chicken and being called the N-word when greeted.
Lawes revealed he had experienced racism aged 16 when in the academy at Northampton – who have insisted the abuse Burrell received did not occur during his time at the club – but has not done so since and he does not agree it is rife in the sport.
Burrell ended his two-year spell at Newcastle at the end of the season – the Falcons have since launched an internal investigation – while both the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby have reached out and apologised. Burrell has said that he would “never name names” and chose to talk about his experiences to bring about change, but in the aftermath the RFU has come under pressure to take wider action.
“I read the article and I was shocked about the stuff that’s been said to Luther because at most clubs – knowing the boys from different clubs who come into the England camp – it just wouldn’t be accepted,” said Lawes, who leads England in Saturday’s first Test against Australia in Perth. “It’s not even a joke, that kind of stuff. It’s way beyond that. I’m feeling for him and I’m not sure what’s going on up there, but it’s absolutely not acceptable.
“ I’m with [Ellis] Genge – I think the person or people who are doing that need to be outed, because it’s just not acceptable in our game. I had a problem with him saying that racism is rife in rugby. If I’m honest, that’s not been my experience. But if that kind of stuff is going on in certain clubs, it needs to be addressed. We need to squash this. We need to find out what is happening and if it’s happening at any other clubs. We need to get it sorted.”
Lawes was part of the most diverse England World Cup squad in history in 2019 when more than a third of the 31-man group were people of colour. Two years later Tom Ilube was appointed as the RFU’s chair, becoming the first black person to hold the role while the union established a diversity and inclusion advisory group in 2021.
But asked if the sport could do more to improve its inclusivity, Lawes added: “It’s about making the game accessible for everyone and if you do that, you will see lots of different kinds of people and different colours of people playing the game. That will be better for rugby as a whole and for society in general, because we’re all people. We all bleed the same. A lot of the time, you actually have quite a lot in common with people from different backgrounds.
“I think the class thing is the main thing. We’ve got loads of private-school lads at Saints and, to be honest, I take the piss out of them far more than they would the other way round! It’s just about getting the opportunities for kids from working-class backgrounds. If I hadn’t gone to Northampton School for Boys, I’d have never played rugby. So I got lucky and it’s probably the same for Gengey and a few other boys who come from backgrounds which are not full of wealth.”
Lawes was confirmed as England’s captain on Thursday by Eddie Jones, who revealed Owen Farrell was “very unhappy” to be stripped of the responsibility. “We want people to be themselves within the team, not worry about rugby all the time, or selection all the time or ‘if I do this then I’m not going to get picked or somebody isn’t going to like it’,” said Lawes. “We want people to be themselves around the team and therefore be themselves on the pitch.”